Food & Drink

Houston Food and Drink Secrets You Really Need to Know About

Published On 10/26/2016 Published On 10/26/2016

Like any good American city, Houston is full of secrets. We have secret bars, secret things you never knew about, and even more secret things you never knew about. As such, we of course have some food-related secrets, y’all! Some can be considered skeletons in the closet; others are really cool things that we think need to be brought to your attention; and a whole bunch are just good ol’ fun facts that you can carry in your pocket until your next awkward “team-building” experience at Topgolf (you know it’s happened).

Julie Soefer Photography

The city's best bar promotes boozy socialism

The OG of Houston’s craft cocktail scene has pioneered a program that lets you taste rare, expensive liquors at cost. Anvil’s Bobby Heugel came up with the idea for the break-even bottle program about five or six years ago, when investors asked for the good stuff and he’d pre-sell bottles to them and loyal customers at break-even pricing. In 2014, the program made its way to the menu when the bar sold a 40-year-old Highland Park at $88.67/oz. Since then, the bar has broken out at-cost pours of hyped bottles like Macallan M ($169/oz) and Port Ellen 14th Release at $108.47/oz, and even some cheaper, yet still rare and fun ones like Ghosted Reserve 26 Year ($13.49/oz).

The Last Concert Cafe once offered a different kind of "good time"

Before the big red door was a gateway for locals, musicians, and broke college kids, it was used to mark the spot of a well-known brothel in the early '40s, kind of like a big X on a treasure map, but with hookers and booze instead of riches and gold. In 1949, the space went legit and was turned into a Mexican restaurant and music cafe, but the “good-time” reputation remains (just without the prostitution).

Brennan's of Houston

You can be a chef for a day… for a price   

You can live out your wildest chef dreams (which hopefully end up being way, way cooler than the ones portrayed on movies and TV) by stepping into some Crocs, and then walking those Crocs straight into the kitchen at Brennan’s. Sign up for the day and you’ll get cool things like a chef’s jacket with your name on it, a tour of a real-life restaurant and kitchen, and a station-by-station hands-on experience in which you realize maybe you shouldn’t, in fact, quit your day job. After that, you’ll make your way to the bar, taste some spirits, and play sommelier for your dinner later (guessing this is probably more your speed). Your shift ends with you and five of your pals at a round table enjoying the fruits of your labor. All of this will cost you a cool $1,475 (not including gratuity), but your dreams are worth it.

Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen

You can conquer the same food challenge as Shaq

True story: Shaquille O'Neill once came to Houston and took on Kenny & Ziggy's eight-decker sandwich challenge. That’d be The Zellagabetsky. You know, the one where you have to eat eight layers of special-cut rye, corned beef, pastrami, turkey, roast beef, salami, tongue, and Swiss cheese along with coleslaw, Russian dressing, and some red sweet pepper all by yourself. If you finish it with no help, they’ll throw in a free cheesecake. Before you go for it, you should know that Shaq ate two…

The Heights is probably dry because of a monkey in a hot air balloon

Say what now? We’re sure you know that a certain area of the Heights is dry, and it has been that way since 1912. What you may not know is why it became that way, and the answer is, a monkey. In short, back in the early 20th century when the Heights was a city of its own, saloons ran rampant on 19th St. One of those saloons was home to the famous Jennie Yon Yon, a monkey that the bar would send off into the sky in a hot air balloon to entertain the crowds (seriously). The then-mayor of the Heights campaigned super-hard to get rid of the saloons, and the local residents, feeling the very real fear of plummeting property values due to debauched crowds cheering on a monkey flying around in hot air balloons, voted the area dry. Now, why the ‘hood has remained that way to this day, no one quite understands. We’re guessing no zoning laws has something to do with it, because doesn’t it always?

Carrabba's Italian Grill

Carrabba's may have started here, but Florida's running game

Carrabba’s Italian Grill began with “two Sicilian boys from Texas” who opened up a humble Italian joint on Kirby Dr near the end of 1986. After opening a second location and gaining considerable success, the Carrabbas entered into a joint venture with Outback Steakhouse, Inc. in 1993. Two years later, OSI acquired the rights to the chain, and since then, the chains have been bloomin’ like an onion. While Carrabba's was a hometown hero for a while, Florida (the HQ of OSI’s parent company) has taken to the Chicken Bryan even more so than it has bath salts. Even though that Chicken Bryan was named after Bryan, Texas, Florida hosts five times the Carrabba’s as Texas, with a whopping 70 restaurants to our 14.

Speaking of Carrabba's, Carrabba's and Damian's and Ninfa's and El Tiempo are all connected

Those “two Sicilian boys from Texas” just so happened to be John Charles "Johnny" Carrabba III and his uncle, Damian Mandola. You may recognize the name Damian Mandola, because he also had part in opening Damian’s Cucina Italiana and Mandola’s Italian. His brother, Vincent A. “Bubba” Mandola, is responsible for the Vincent’s, Nino’s, Pronto Cucinino, and Grappino di Nino quartet, in part with his other brother, Anthony “Tony” Mandola Jr. This all sounds like a lotta Italian, so where does the Tex-Mex come in? Well, Tony Jr. married Phyllis Lorenzo Mandola, whose mother was none other than “Mama Ninfa” herself, the womAn responsible for spreading the popularity of the fajita and bringing us both Ninfa’s and -- via her son Roland -- El Tiempo Cantina. There’s even more restaurant incest that went down, which the Houston Press does a standout job of covering for those interested.

Shipley Do-Nuts

Think Shipley do-nuts and kolache kinda taste the same? It’s because they do.

You know when you eat a Shipley glazed do-nut, then you eat a Shipley sausage and cheese kolache and you’re like, wait, why the hell did those taste so similar? Well, that’s because the do-nuts and kolache have the same DNA. They’re made from the same exact dough, a yeast, water, and secret formula mix that was developed 70 years ago and has absolutely zero reason to change because it’s clearly working.

There's been a secret supper club going on for 10 years, and it’s popping up in Houston

The social set values exclusivity, and err’body loves pop-up dinner parties. With that in mind, The Supper Club was launched in 2005. The members-only dinners took place in London, New York, Miami, and Los Angeles... until now. In November, the secret, high-style party will be debuting its first pop-up series in H-town. Only 30 will be allowed to join, so if you do, try not make us all look bad. We’d like to keep Houston’s street cred intact.

You have no excuse for getting suckered into that Snickers at the checkout aisle

That’s because healthy checkout aisles are a thing here! Go Healthy Houston has piloted a healthy choices aisle in Watkin’s Supermarket on Cullen Blvd, and said healthy choices include fresh produce and healthy snacks instead of all the stuff you really want. One problem, Go Healthy Houston. What’s a Watkin’s Supermarket?

Torchy's Tacos

Torchy's has a sinful secret menu to order from

Die-hard Torchy’s fans may know about the taco slinger’s sorta-kept-secret menu, but the masses probably don’t. That’s because the items aren’t on the menu (duh) and you’d be a jerk if you just went in making stuff up (like that time you got your friend to ask for the bebe sauce). But the crown jewel does exist, with items like the “Ace of Spades,” a jalapeño sausage, fried egg, and grilled brisket number with green chile queso, diablo hot sauce, and the proper fixins. Or the “Trailer Park Hillbilly Style,” where the already-trashy “Trailer Park” gets dirtier with some chorizo and bacon.

Gulf Coast oysters used to have fancy names, too

East and West Coast oysters seem to get all the fuss, perhaps because Third Coast bivalves don’t have prissy names like “Beausoleil” from New Brunswick and “Montauk Pearls” from Long Island. Ours are just called Gulf oysters. Well apparently, they didn't used to be. The oysters were once classified by their respective estuaries, just like their East and West brethren, Texas oysters had names of famous old reefs like Pepper Grove, Deer Island, and Lady's Pass. That is, until the practice came to a sudden halt in the mid-1800s, when sheer quantity, an increase in demand, and the arrival of the railroad made “commodity” oysters a thing. Our response? Oh well.

Saint Arnold Brewing Company

Saint Arnold makes no money on its root beer, and it's OK with that

When the team at Saint A noticed a whole hell of a lot of families were coming to the brewery, they began making a root beer for fun. Since they’re all about quality, the team uses real cane sugar for a fuller sweetness and better mouthfeel (plus some other secret ingredients that they say they can’t tell us because they’d have to kill us). Problem is, cane sugar is stupid-expensive, so they don’t profit from making it. Even without putting effort into marketing and selling it, the root beer sales continue to grow. Their response? “Oh well.”

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Brooke Viggiano is a Houston-based writer who can’t come up with anything clever for this part. Oh well. Follow her @BrookeViggiano in case she ever does.

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